Having a String Choir perform The Music of Paul Motian is certainly an attention-grabber if one knows anything about Paul Motian's contributions to the jazz world. Motian is a veteran drummer and a composer, not a member of a chamber group (although he started out on guitar early in his career before making the drums his main instrument). So what does a Motian-related project have to do with strings? This early-2010 recording, it turns out, finds guitarist Joel Harrison paying tribute to Motian with the help of fellow guitarist Liberty Ellman and a string quartet consisting of Christian Howes and Sam Bardfeld on violin, Dana Leong on cello, and Mat Maneri or Peter Ugrin on viola. Motian doesn't actually play on the album; in fact, there are no drums at all (only string instruments), and that says a lot about what Harrison was going for. Motian, more than anyone, realizes that jazz is about interpretation rather than emulation; Harrison obviously agrees, which is why his String Choir salutes Motian without trying to emulate him. Except for Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso" and acoustic bassist Scott LaFaro's "Jade Visions" (which Motian played when he was part of pianist Bill Evans' trio), everything here is a Motian composition -- and Harrison's arrangements favor an ambitious mixture of post-bop, third stream, and mildly avant-garde jazz (emphasis on the word mildly). Euro-classical chamber music is a strong influence on "Cathedral Song," "Owl of Cranston," and other Motian pieces, but Harrison doesn't become so classical-obsessed that he lets improvisation fall by the wayside. No, that isn't the scenario at all. The guitarist doesn't sacrifice his jazz mentality, and there is plenty of room for Harrison and others to stretch out and improvise on this self-produced 55-minute CD. It should also be noted that even though The Music of Paul Motian has an inside/outside component (more inside than outside), this is far from an atonal free jazz screamfest; the performances are on the cerebral side, but they are also quite musical. This album by the Joel Harrison String Choir is a winner on many different levels, and Harrison's ambition serves him well throughout the imaginative project.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson